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Senior athletes: from standouts to hopefuls

Eligibility rules likely to create more competition

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It had been a few weeks since any coaches had held practices, and just as long since any athletes had stepped onto a field. The hope of even shortened seasons for spring sports were diminishing by the day. Then, on April 21, Nassau and Suffolk County school district superintendents announced that the high school spring athletic season had been canceled.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur High School Athletic Director Keith Snyder was tasked with letting his coaches know. He reflected on what could have been a special spring season for so many of his student athletes. Instead, they walked out of MacArthur’s halls in mid-March as high school seniors for the last time. The next academic halls they enter will be at their chosen colleges.

“It’s really tough. Yeah, it’s tough on every one of them,” Snyder said. “There are multiple disappointments for the seniors, though. They’re losing out on their last season of sports, graduation, prom season. All of that is gone.”

He had high praise for many MacArthur students and their hard work and sportsmanship throughout their high school careers. He spoke of the seniors who had played their last games, run their last meets and put on their jerseys for the last time.

One of them is football and lacrosse standout Hugh Kelleher. The tall running back played a key role in MacArthur’s successful 2019 football season, and was highly touted as one of the top tailbacks in the county. Kelleher had already committed to play lacrosse at Cornell University before his senior football campaign started. The standout midfielder was hoping to cap his high school career with a memorable spring season. This spring will be memorable, but for a much different reason.

“He’s a phenom — a stud,” Snyder said. “It’s very sad he won’t get the opportunity to play his senior season. He’s one of the better athletes I’ve seen in my time here in the Levittown District. Hughie is a special athlete and an even more special kid.”

The Generals have a number of talented seniors who have committed to college teams, including girls’ varsity lacrosse players Mary-Kate Sweeney and Sierra Cullen. Both decided to play lacrosse at nearby Molloy College in Rockville Centre, an NCAA Division II program. Sweeney committed back in November, and Cullen did so in February. Both are planning to major in nursing.

“These girls have lost so many opportunities,” said lacrosse coach Dan Agovino. “They won’t be able to play their senior season with their teammates, they won’t . . . get a chance to get their picture on the wall as an All-County player for MacArthur in their senior year. That’s tough.”

So Agovino, Sweeney and Cullen are focused on what’s next. Sweeney met with Molloy lacrosse coach Tom Campolettano on an overnight visit. “He reminded me of the heart that Coach Agovino has, and the love he gives us,” Sweeney said of Campolettano. “It’s a great community and it’s all about helping each other out.”

Sweeney, a highly touted goalie in her past three years on the MacArthur varsity, was hoping to take a few more steps forward in her senior season, though. “It does bring a setback, because there’s no better practice than a game,” she said. “When I practiced with the Molloy team on my overnight visit, of course stepping into the net as goalie against 20- and 21-year-olds is intimidating, but I said, ‘If not now, than never, so here’s the starting point. Let’s go.’”

Cullen didn’t get a chance to go on an official visit, because social distancing guidelines took effect shortly after she made her decision. She did, however, attend a Molloy home game with Sweeney. “We went to watch them, and they were amazing,” Cullen said. “The coach wanted us to have a Zoom meeting with the whole team, and we did, and we bonded. We talked to each other, and it got me excited. I’m 100 percent counting down the days.”

The NCAA recently ruled that its spring-season senior athletes would be given a fifth year of eligibility, which surely had an instant ripple effect, according to Sweeney and Cullen.

“I do know, financially, it can affect me,” Sweeney said. “As soon as that news broke . . . Coach Campi reached out to us and said that we could be getting money taken away from [our scholarships] if a senior wants to stay. Especially as a goalie, it’s going to be hard to compete with a senior goalie. It does make me want to work harder to prove we should be on the team, though.”

According to Sweeney and Cullen, Campolettano made them aware that if the team is carrying an inflated roster, a “travel team” stipulation will be put into effect, under which not all players would travel to away games.

Agovino lauded Sweeney’s and Cullen’s accomplishments and their character. “They’re not only fierce and intense competitors off the field, but going into nursing at Molloy during this pandemic just speaks to the type of people they are,” he said.

MacArthur track also has three athletes poised to compete on the college level. According to head track and cross-country coach Mike Gattus, Tim Weber, Jason Maynard and Christine Grandon will all do so. Weber committed to Stony Brook University for cross-country; Grandon, a sprinter and long jumper, committed to Quinnipiac University; and Maynard talked about wanting to attend Johns Hopkins University, but Gattus wasn’t sure whether he had made a decision.

Grandon holds the school record in the long jump, Weber has a number of school records in cross-country, and Maynard holds the record in the two-mile run.

“All three of them are great kids — very polite, well-mannered and very talented individuals,” Gattus said. “All three of them will do very well at the next level.”

One of the benefits of the track and cross-country season is that it lasts throughout the school year if athletes participate in all three seasons. But seniors couldn’t be sure whether they were competing for the last time at the winter track and field state championship earlier this year.

“Our last big meet was states, and I don’t think they finished where they wanted to,” Gattus said. “Jason was sick, Tim was probably tired from the long season. But I kept telling them, qualifying and just getting here, that’s the accomplishment.”

Gattus suggested that none of his seniors wanted their last track memory to be thinking they could have done better, but that would make them work harder, he added, to succeed at the next level.